Open space and trails a never-ending job in Pitkin County |

Open space and trails a never-ending job in Pitkin County

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times
Open Space and Trails senior ranger John Armstrong points out an area across the Roaring Fork River that is part of the North Star Nature Preserve. The area is off limits to people, but not deer.
Michael McLaughlin/The Aspen Times |

At first glance, the hikers coming down the Smuggler Mountain Road in a group look equally perplexed and agitated as the white Pitkin County truck slowly moves toward them.

The truck pulls over to the side of the narrow road and waits for the group to make its way around the vehicle. The looks change quickly to smiles as they’re given a friendly greeting from Open Space and Trails senior ranger John Armstrong.

“Can I help you folks with anything?” Armstrong asks from the driver’s seat.

The hikers thank Armstrong but don’t need any help. They tell him they appreciate the offer and continue on their way.

“This is one of my favorite parts of the job,” Armstrong said. “It’s awesome to interact with people who are really enjoying themselves in this beautiful setting.


Armstrong is one of four Pitkin County Open Space and Trails rangers and acts as the spokesman for the rangers. He’s been living in the Roaring Fork Valley since 1971 and has been an open space ranger in Aspen for seven years.

The main responsibilities for Armstrong and the other open space rangers are managing county land and recreational trails. They also provide visitor services, enforce regulations and maintain trails.

They patrol by foot, bicycle or vehicle while performing trail checks. They look for and identify hazardous conditions on trails and open space lands, as well as identify maintenance needs, monitoring wildlife activity and ecological changes.

Armstrong says he spends most of his time in the summer monitoring the North Star Nature Preserve, Smuggler Mountain and the ever-growing number of special events in and around Aspen.


The North Star preserve is 175 acres of open space on the Roaring Fork River about 11/2 miles east of Aspen in Pitkin County. It’s part of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program and was set aside for preservation for many reasons, including as an elk-calving and bird-nesting area, a natural aquifer, a living classroom and as a place for quiet recreation.

Pitkin County purchased the land was purchased in 1977, the first tract it bought to set aside specifically for wildlife preservation.

“I consider the North Star Nature Preserve as our ‘crown jewel’ of protected areas in and around Aspen,” Armstrong said. “It is incredibly beautiful and pristine, but the cat’s out of the bag. It’s easily accessed, and more and more people are taking advantage of its close proximity to Aspen.”

Armstrong said the number of visitors to North Star has increased 2,000 percent in the past three years.

“The numbers are absolutely off the charts,” he said. “There are some very specific rules in that area, and it’s been a challenge to keep the public educated.”

The Roaring Fork River borders the preserve, and the land between the river and Highway 82 has a hiking trail and is open to the public. All the land south of the river on the preserve is off limits.

One of the biggest challenges has been keeping dog owners from letting their pets run free in the area. The preserve allows no dogs whatsoever.

The Roaring Fork River also is getting much more use from paddleboarders and tubers.

“Because the preserve is such a sensitive area, we have to monitor it closely,” Armstrong said. “This is an area we won’t hesitate to ticket people who won’t follow the rules. What we’re striving for is a balance between resource protection and allowing people to enjoy their recreational experience.”


Armstrong said the number of special-event requests has been going up consistently, especially the past few years. Each event that comes to Aspen needs to be monitored, especially for safety.

This fall, the Pitkin County Community Development Department will release a detailed report on special events that should help determine the impact the events have on the area.

“The report will give us some guidance on how to proceed with these events,” Armstrong said. “It’ll help determine how many events we can support, the size, where and when we have them as well as if they’re an appropriate fit for our resources.”


The Smuggler Mountain Road and trail system averages 400-plus users a day in the summer. Roughly half of those users are dog walkers. The road is not a leash-required area, but dogs must be voice- and sight-controlled.

Dog walkers still must possess a leash and a bag to remove animal waste as well as accept responsibility for removing any dog waste they pick up from the road-and-trail system.

“Behavior is paramount,” Armstrong said. “It’s a wonderful place to walk dogs and let them socialize.”

There are many signs that explain the rules on the road and trails. There also are several trash cans and waste-bag stations on the lower half-mile of the road.

Armstrong lists four criteria when he patrols Smuggler Mountain: outreach, education, compliance and enforcement — in that order.

“We want to give people the opportunity to be educated on the rules,” Armstrong said. “It makes my job easier. Part of my job is being an advocate for environmental stewardship. We haven’t had to give out a lot of citations this year. The Smuggler area has become much cleaner the past five years. People should be proud of that.”

Armstrong wanted to remind people hiking in the area that Smuggler Mountain Road still is a low-maintenance country road where vehicles have the right of way. He also believes that if people employ a little courtesy and respect, no matter what form of transportation they choose, everyone can share the whole outdoor experience.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.